Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis

Broken glass - bullet holes isolated on black

We can use the scientific process…to help us learn how firearms can be safer. 

The numbers are daunting. Over 33,000 people die from guns in the United States each year, more than any other industrialized country.  The homicide rate in our country is twenty times higher than countries similar to ours. While mass shootings are occurring at increasing frequency and dominate newspaper headlines, most deaths –two thirds– are from suicide.  And perhaps most disturbing is that children less than 18 years old in America die from guns at a rate that is eleven times that of other countries; suicide is the second most common cause of death for our youth.

I tend to look at health and medicine from an optimistic, “glass half full” perspective. For most health topics, I find it relatively easy to take this perspective.  However, it is difficult to do so with gun violence.  Put bluntly, there is nothing good guns do for human health. Every death from firearms is tragic, sudden, and disturbing. Every death from firearms did not have to happen.

I also like to look at health recommendations from what is considered an “evidence-based” perspective. “Evidence- based” means that recommendations are based on scientific evidence and research. The scientific process attempts to look at questions from an objective viewpoint, and continually reevaluates previous conclusions to confirm their accuracy. Using science to guide us is our best chance at knowing what “works” for health problems.

Americans own more guns per capita than any other industrialized country in the world. Meanwhile, the second amendment protects the rights of Americans to bear arms. These facts will not change. What can potentially change, however, is the creation of a safer environment in which guns and people coexist. My hope– my “glass half full” perspective–  is that by approaching firearm safety as we have other public health issues, we can come together as a nation and take rational, evidence based actions to reduce harm from firearms.

By reviewing past public health challenges, our country can learn how to reduce deaths from firearms. A good example is how we have approached harm caused from motor vehicle crashes. Because of research studies, we learned that wearing seat belts and having airbags save lives. Meanwhile, the statistics have overwhelmingly supported the notion that driving intoxicated increases the risk of being killed — and killing others– in motor vehicle crashes. As a result, laws were enacted that required cars to be made with airbags, drivers to wear seat belts, and that have enforced not driving intoxicated. Even more importantly, because of what has been learned through research, driving culture has changed. It is not acceptable in our country to drive drunk or without a seatbelt. In other words, research illuminates important health and safety facts, laws support those facts, and behaviors change.

Similarly, if we ask questions and arrive at answers through objective research studies, we can use the scientific process as an important tool to help us learn how firearms can be safer in the United States. Already we know that gun safes and locks reduce suicides and accidental shootings in the home, but we need to learn more. We need to use scientific, evidence-based research to learn what other interventions can help make the presence of firearms in the home safer.

In our current era of political divisiveness, it is time to come together as a country to reduce gun deaths. Gun violence in America is a complex problem and solutions are often not simple, but if we approach this topic as we do other public health topics, and utilize an evidence-based perspective, as a country we may be able to make progress in reducing the number of deaths each year from firearms.

Listen in on my discussion with Dr. Mark Larson on “Gun Violence as a Public Health Problem”.

Above the Clouds


cloudsRecently I was graced by the presence of a friend who is in the midst of battling cancer. It was a very special privilege, a reminder of how precious we each are, and how every day is a gift.

To have an aggressive or advanced cancer and to meet it head on transports that person and their loved ones into a different state of being. Most people not facing a life threatening disease go about their daily life with an underlying sense that the future is measured in many years. There is time to think about what might happen next year, to plan for retirement; there is time to day dream about the future. But cancer changes all that. What is important is now: family, friends, the warm sun and the beautiful blue sky. Now is so very precious and important. Now is the time to tell your spouse you love them, to notice and share the beauty in your child. The present is alive with the beautiful energy of life and love. It is almost as if the people without cancer are living on the surface of the earth, below the clouds on a partly sunny day, while those absorbed in the intensity of living with cancer have the opportunity to rise up and see those clouds not from below, but from above, to experience the radiant blue sky and the brilliance of the tops of white clouds and bright sunlight.

I know this heightened awareness of living, as my life was once acutely threatened by cancer. I felt uncertainty and fear, but when I was able to move through and above those feelings, I experienced a clarity of perspective, a vivid awareness of the beauty of life. I know it, I have lived it, but am not there now. As far as I know, if my good fortune continues, I am free of my cancer. Over the past couple of years, I have gradually rejoined the cancer-free crowd, and as such have slipped into the inevitable routine of thinking and feeling too often into the future. Because I am not acutely threatened as I once was, I have slipped out of that special, heightened state of being. I love to appreciate the present and try to take nothing for granted, but it is not the same. There is no substitute for the real thing.

Spending an hour with this very special person who was immersed in the cancer experience, whose eyes sparkled as she smiled at her daughter and told her husband she loved him, was truly a gift. It reminded me of my experience, and how important it is to strive – all of us – to experience and appreciate life to the fullest. Just by trying, we can make our lives and the lives of those around us that much more close to that special, almost divine, state of being.